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South by Southwest 2008

17 March 2008
Monday, 6:06 PM

My fourth year at Austin’s juggernaut of an interactive conference was more of a mixed bag than years past, as both I and SXSW adapted to its growing pains.

This year’s conference was, I believe, about three times the size of my first (in 2005). Daytime sessions expanded to remote areas of Austin’s sprawling convention center, and overcrowded lunch and evening activities tested even Texas’s deft corralling hand. Those who knew the territory well enough could avoid the lines and crowds by creating their own smaller gatherings, but that intimacy often came at the expense of meeting new people. And that was probably my biggest disappointment: Despite the tremendous amount of new faces, I came home with a stack of business cards that was a mere fraction of the size I’m used to having to sift through.

This is not to say I didn’t have a great time. In particular, I had more fun presenting than I ever have before.

Battledecks II, a PowerPoint improv competition, was both less disastrous and more fun than I expected. I was honored to tie with Ted Rheingold for a distant second place to Anil Dash’s rock-solid victory, even if it was only because judge Jonathan Grubb gave me extra points to appease a crowd hungry for higher scores.

Everyone’s a Design Critic, a critique-focused presentation I gave with Stan, was even more fun. Despite an early time slot on the first morning of Daylight Savings Time, there was great energy in the room, and the audience was willing to share in the rapport Stan and I already have with each other, which kept the whole thing loose and engaging. Deann, our volunteer from the audience, contributed a pitch-perfect impersonation of a difficult client, and the Q&A afterward brought about a great conversation about dealing with notorious design critique issues.

I also enjoyed many of the panels and presentations I saw, especially:

  • High-Tech Craft: Why Sewing and Knitting Still Matter: This opened my eyes to a whole world of DIYers infusing fashion with technology, and was an inspiring reminder that applied technology needn’t be limited to what sits on your desktop or in your pocket.
  • A General Theory of Creative Relativity: Using his studio’s various communal experiments as a point of reference, Jim Coudal took a very interesting stab at a pseudo-scientific analysis of how creativity works.
  • Frank Warren Keynote: After so much dehumanizing discussion of “users,” it was really nice to spend some time talking about people, and the stories of Frank’s experiences with PostSecret were genuinely moving.

All in all, it was another completely worthwhile and rewarding SXSW, and I’m looking forward to using what I learned from this year’s growth to enjoy next year even more.

Filed under: Art/Design, Technology, Travel, Web

Comments Closed (12)

1. Naz Hamid says…  |  17 March 2008 / 6:25 PM

Rob, it sounds like we have a similar take on SXSW this year. Though I'm not quite sure that I had enjoyed this year as last year, it was a different vibe and for that, it was an experience itself.


2. Tom Watson says…  |  17 March 2008 / 6:37 PM

Rob, as always, it was good to spend some time with you. For me, the most frustrating thing is that I love to meet new people, talk, catch-up, etc., but with so many people at SXSW I have a terrible time focusing in and having a solid conversation with anyone before being interrupted or being off in another direction.

I'm sure I'll say this next year, but, well, next year.

3. Chelsea says…  |  17 March 2008 / 7:24 PM

Rob, this year was my first at SxSW, but I imagine you and other veterans feel about it the way I feel about the Sundance Film Festival. 10 years ago, it was small and intimate, and I left each year having personally spoken to the makers of every film I liked. Now it is huge and commercial, and I leave each year wondering why I go back.

I was disappointed in a lot of the panels at SxSW - (Really? You prepared a presentation full of bullet points for an audience of designers?) - but yours w/ Jason was one of the few that was actually useful. It was clear you put a lot of time into crafting useful content, and delivering it in an engaging way. The two of you have a great rapport, and I'm more than happy I dragged my sorry, hung-over ass out of bed to see you two in action.

4. Steven Ray says…  |  17 March 2008 / 8:20 PM

Hey at least you're going next year. When I saw you, you weren't so sure. This was my first year and I also felt the pain of pain of the crowd but it was worth it, to me, to meet a lot of people I only knew from the interweb.

And it's always good to see you botha. ;)

5. Ian Muir says…  |  17 March 2008 / 9:56 PM

I definitely agree with you Rob, this year was not quite as good as previous years. I was excited to be presenting for the first time, but that excitement waned when I found out that my room was buried in the deep bowels of the third floor.

It also seems that most of the people I know have a similar opinion of this year's SXSW. Hopefull Hugh and they other organizers will make some changes for next year.

6. Rob Weychert says…  |  18 March 2008 / 12:04 AM

Ian: I should make it clear that I think Hugh and his staff did an excellent job of dealing with the conference’s increasing scale. It simply isn’t possible anymore to keep everything contained in one small area of the convention center, and while it may have required more exercise to get around (which most of us geeks can use, frankly), the maps and wayfinding systems made it pretty easy to get the lay of the land. Likewise, the scheduling of the myriad panels and presentations—no small task—was well-considered, and the volunteers were as friendly and helpful as ever. I’ll admit that plenty of improvements can be made (Core Conversations were a noble experiment that will probably undergo some rethinking), but I really think that if SXSW is to remain this size or get bigger, we as attendees will just need to assume a bit more personal responsibility for our own experience. After all, we’re not just spectators; we’re providing the content, too. I guess my point is this: As SXSW changes, so must our expectations of it.

7. mai-ling says…  |  18 March 2008 / 10:00 AM

never been to SXSW but remember the beginnings of it when it was a small festival. but like most things, the larger they get, the things that made it special, become lost.

8. Noel Jackson says…  |  19 March 2008 / 12:05 AM

As a first timer at SXSW, I have to say, the crowd made it overwhelming. So many people and an odd split of internet entrepreneurs and designers/developers. I came home with few cards as well.

It was nice to meet you Rob. :)

9. Deann Graham says…  |  19 March 2008 / 5:20 PM

Great presentation like always. I channeled my inner client to achieve the level you wanted. I have to be the client for my students. I like to be the insane horrible client. They hate it, but it prepares them. Missed out on the frozen creamy goodness. It was bigger, but I still was able to converse with many people. Not in the panels, but in the streets and tradeshow.

10. Daniel K says…  |  20 March 2008 / 10:19 PM

It's true. She really does enjoy being the horrible client. I've seen students cringe in the corner and cry after she's done with them.

11. Ian Muir says…  |  23 March 2008 / 1:24 AM

My comment wasn't meant to be negative about Hugh or the other organizers. He was very helpful in getting OpenFormat going and I can't imagine organizing an event the size of SXSWi.

Every year I've gone, the conference has grown, but this is the first year that it felt like it had grown too fast. My concerns about amking changes were less about how the conference has gone in the past, but more about adapting to the growing attendance.

12. Bruce Floyd says…  |  10 April 2008 / 11:45 AM

I revisiting my notes from your presentation and I have to say that I'm quite grateful for the fantastic information provided by you and Stan. Too often we've let clients run meetings that invariably turn into "we want" and "we don't like" sessions. I intend to use your information to grow a stiffer spine. Thanks!

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